The NFL postseason is a time of intense, high-stakes football for the twelve teams that experience it each year.
For the other twenty teams, it’s a time of reflection. An early start to their offseason, where they can spend resources evaluating and tweaking their roster to bring it back in stronger form. They might use this time to find a new coach to lead said roster, or new management to assemble it. They might do both, if the regular season went poorly enough. Whatever the case, each of the twenty teams will work to set themselves up for the 2018 postseason, even as the 2017 only begins in the background.
Before a team can accurately plan their next incarnation, however, they must first understand their last one. One of the most rudimentary, yet reliable ways to do this, is through statistical analysis. Sometimes, knowing what separated the successful teams from the unsuccessful ones in a given season is as simple as reading numbers.
Below, we’ll take a look at the key statistics that defined the 2017 Bengals offense.
Total Net Yards of Offense: 4,488 (280.50 per game, 32nd in NFL)
Passing Yards (After Sacks): 3,122 (195.13 per game, 27th in NFL)
Sack Yardage Lost: -264 (-16.50 per game, 20th in NFL)
Rushing Yards: 1,366 (85.38 per game, 31st in NFL)
In case you didn’t notice, the Bengals’ offense was bad in 2017. It may sound simple, but there’s a strong correlation between playoff teams and teams with the most yards. Of the top eleven total yardage teams, nine made the playoffs and eight were division champions. The other three – Carolina, Tennessee and Buffalo – somewhat redeem themselves in other ways, but are generally considered outliers.
It’s worth noting the distance of the total yard spread across the AFC. The Patriots, Steelers, Chargers, Chiefs, and Jaguars rank in the top six. The Titans, Browns, Dolphins, Ravens, Jets, Bills, Colts, and Bengals rank in the bottom ten. It’s unsurprising that the Titans and Bills sneaked into the postseason on account of other strengths with such weak competition.
Back to the Bengals – it’s easy to say a team needs to gain more yards to produce better results. As far as which kind? The top twelve teams in passing yardage include eight playoff teams, seven of them division champions. Jacksonville lags slightly behind in 17th (3,593 yards), while Tennessee, Carolina, and Buffalo are predictably further back.
As for rushing yards, the correlation is far stronger. The top ten teams in rushing yardage include nine playoff teams – led by Jacksonville, with Buffalo at 6th. Atlanta and Tennessee, at 13th (1,847) and 15th (1,833) aren’t far back. Pittsburgh, oddly enough, is the lowest rushing playoff team at 20th (1,667). Regardless, with Le’Veon Bell and their line, no one would accuse the Steelers of being unable to run the ball.
Sack yardage may seem like an odd stat to prioritize, but the playoff correlation there is particularly strong. Buffalo, one spot ahead of Cincinnati at 19th (-261) has the lowest ranking of the playoff teams. The only team below Cincinnati that had playoff hopes in Week 17 is Seattle – a notoriously bad pass protection team.
Scrimmage Plays: 927 (57.94 per game, 32nd in NFL)
Pass Plays: 550 (34.38 per game, 25th in NFL)
Rush Attempts: 377 (23.56 per game, 29th in NFL)
Pass/Run Balance: 59.33%-40.67% (11th furthest toward pass in NFL)
There’s not much of any correlation between number of plays run and team success. Still, it’s hard to refute the point that the Bengals offense can’t produce if they’re not on the field.
The pass-to-run ratio correlation is significant, especially juxtaposed with total yardage outputs. Earlier, it was mentioned that nine of the top eleven yardage teams were in the playoffs. The other two were the Chargers and Buccaneers, respectively the 13th and 3rd pass-heaviest teams. None of the thirteen pass-heaviest teams made the playoffs. Nine of the twelve run-heaviest teams did.
It doesn’t take a genius to look at these numbers, combined with the last batch, and see a pattern. Offenses that run well, do well. The Bengals offense didn’t.
Total First Downs: 267 (T-30th/32nd in NFL)
First Downs Play Percentage: 28.80% (23rd in NFL)
Third Down Conversion: 33.67% (29th in NFL)
Third Downs Play Percentage: 21.47% (10th in NFL)
The first down metrics favor playoff teams nearly as strongly as the yardage metrics do. Ten of the top fifteen teams in total first downs are playoff teams – as are nine of the top twelve. Removing first downs awarded from penalties, that becomes ten of the top fourteen. The stragglers are the usual suspects – Tennessee and Buffalo. Cincinnati’s 267 first downs ties for last in the league – their 237 first downs without penalties ties for 31st. There’s ground to be made up here before the Bengals offense is taken remotely seriously, let alone meriting playoff talk.
The correlation on third down is clear as well. Eight of the top ten teams in conversion rate are playoff teams, with only Tennessee finishing outside the top 20. However, Tennessee also only faces third down on 20.74 percent of plays – the twelfth-lowest clip in the league. Of the eleven teams with lower rates then them, six are in the playoffs.
That’s not the strongest correlation in and of itself – four playoff teams are left out. Carolina and Philadelphia are on either side of Cincinnati, facing third down at the 9th and 11th most frequent rates. The Rams face third down 21.40 percent of the time, while Buffalo faces it a league-leading 23.86 percent of the time. The catch? Those four teams converted third downs over 40 percent of the time. No other team in the top twenty did.
Interceptions: 12 (T-18th/22nd in NFL)
Fumbles Lost: 11 (T-8th/11th in NFL)
Total Giveaways: 23 (T-12th/14th in NFL)
Turnover Differential: -9 (27th in NFL)
It should come as a surprise of no one that not turning the ball over correlates with winning games.
Eleven teams threw eleven or fewer interceptions – seven are in the playoffs. Eleven teams lost six or fewer fumbles – seven are in the playoffs. Only two playoff teams missed both of those categories, and one (Jacksonville) finished with a positive turnover differential regardless.
Those aren’t marks that the Bengals widely missed, which is an indictment on their defense. The other two teams that finished with 23 takeaways – Jacksonville and San Francisco, had turnover differentials of +10 and -3.
That said, Jacksonville was the only team with 23 giveaways to finish with a positive differential. Of the ten teams that finished with under 20 giveaways, only Atlanta (-2) had a negative differential. Nine of the fourteen teams that finished with positive differentials made the playoffs, the others being Carolina, Atlanta, and Tennessee. The offense can afford to shoulder some blame.
It’s worth noting, again, the massive split in AFC teams regarding turnover differential. The Redskins and Cardinals carry the lowest figure of the NFC teams at -4. The Titans, Jets, Bengals, Texans, Dolphins, Raiders, Broncos, and Browns all come in at -4 or worse. Yet, at the top, the Ravens, Chiefs, Chargers, Jaguars, and Bills are among the seven teams with a margin of +9 or greater.
Total Points: 290 (18.13 per game, 26th in NFL)
Point Differential: -59 (22nd in NFL)
Field Goal Percentage: 90.00% (9th in NFL)
Passing Touchdowns: 25 (T-12th/14th in NFL)
Rushing Touchdowns: 6 (T-28th/30th in NFL)
Total Touchdowns: 31 (23rd in NFL)
Another tidbit that surprises no one: winning games requires scoring points. Preferably more than the opponent.
Two playoff teams – once again, Tennessee and Buffalo – failed to do that in the 2017 season. Tennessee enters the tournament with -22 net points, Buffalo with -57. The other ten playoff teams are all among the top twelve in net points. The Ravens and Chargers – themselves playoff teams in a slightly alternate timeline – are the other two.
The point differential metric heavily favors the division champions, all eight of whom are in the top ten. The drop-off from Kansas City at 10th (+76) to Atlanta at 11th (+38) is notable.
Field goal accuracy is clearly worth more than some team’s investment in kickers would indicate. Tennessee ranks the lowest among playoff teams in field goal percentage at 19th (83.33%). This isn’t an area where the Bengals appear to have a problem.
As for touchdowns – ten of the playoff teams had either 25 or more through the air or 15 or more on the ground. The outliers – Atlanta and Buffalo – had 33 and 28 total touchdowns, respectively. Tennessee had 32, Carolina 37, Kansas City 38. The other seven were among the nine teams to have 39 or more.
25 passing touchdowns would’ve cut it just fine for Cincinnati. Once again, the ground game comes into focus as a required prerequisite to contention. Philadelphia finished 24th in the league with 9 rushing touchdowns, but they lead the league in aerial scores. The next-lowest playoff teams – Kansas City, Atlanta, and Buffalo – all scored 12 times on the ground.